A few months ago, I had a troubling conversation with a male friend of mine. He asked me what I planned to do as a career after school, to which I responded, “Practice law.”
“You don’t have any interest in science?” “Not particularly,” I said. “I think it’s an interesting subject, but I’m not interested in it as a career.”
He nodded. “Girls just aren’t interested in science as a career. Their brains aren’t meant for it. That’s why there aren’t many women in science. None of the girls I’ve talked to are interested in it.”
It’s worth noting he had talked to a grand total of three girls about this topic, including me. As odd as his logic was, the conversation got me thinking. He was wrong that girls aren’t interested in science, but he was correct that there aren’t many women in science fields. But is it really that girls aren’t good at science, or is it something else?
The reason that girls don’t go into science has nothing to do with lack of skill. In fact, studies show that girls perform just as well in science as boys throughout elementary and middle school, only dropping off in high school. This is not because of a lack of talent, but because society often discourages girls to pursue science. Only 13% of workers in STEM industries are women. This can be attributed to a number of reasons: stereotypes, marginalization and unfair treatment, and a lack of female role models.
Perhaps there would be more high school girls interested in pursuing STEM fields if not for all of the negative stereotypes and biases surrounding women and science and math. In an article for the New York Times, one of the two first women to graduate from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in physics, Eileen Pollack, explores some of these stereotypes. When she held a tea to discuss science and gender, she was shocked that the same attitudes that had kept her from going to graduate school persist. One girl recounted that boys in her AP Physics class in high school taunted her, saying, “You’re a girl. Girls can’t do physics.” Another girl told how her teacher said in front of the class that she would be graded on a “girl curve” because he could not reasonably expect her to perform on par with her male classmates. Girls are conditioned from childhood to desire domesticity and femininity; while boys are given Legos and chemistry sets, we are given Barbies, kitchen sets, and baby dolls. Interest in science and math is discouraged, not necessarily actively, but by roles and stereotypes that society enforces. How are girls supposed to succeed in these fields when society tells them they will fail?
Another factor that discourages girls from going into scientific fields is the knowledge that, if they do so, they will not be treated equally. A study done by Yale in 2012 revealed that physicists, chemists, and biologists viewed male candidates more favorably than women with the exact same qualifications. Professors at six major schools were more willing to offer the man a job. Even if they did hire the woman, they set her salary four thousand dollars lower. Women in STEM are given less space, recognition, fewer resources, and a lower salary. Why would anyone want to go into a field where their work is considered less valuable simply because they are female?
When you think of pioneers in science, who do you think of? Most likely, you think of names like Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Leonardo da Vinci. Many people believe that the reason women get left out in lessons on science and history is because women didn’t contribute anything. In reality, women have made some of the most groundbreaking scientific discoveries, only to have their findings attributed to male colleagues or husbands. Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars in 1967, only for her supervisor to receive the Nobel Prize. Lise Meitner’s work led to the discovery of nuclear fission-but her partner published their findings without naming Lise as his co-author. The result is that today girls don’t have historical figures to look up to in the same way that boys do.
It’s clear that girls are certainly capable of doing great things in science, if we let them. By discouraging girls from entering scientific fields, we cut potential for discovery and growth. It’s time to change our attitudes about women in science. Teenage girls who are interested in the field need to be encouraged. They need to know that women have been behind brilliant discoveries. They need to know that they are just as smart and capable as their male classmates. We can’t afford to keep leaving half of our brightest behind.
Eve is an avid writer based in the Sunshine State. She enjoys reading, writing, playing with her cats, and participating in Mock Trial. In the future, she plans to go to law school to pursue a career as a district attorney.